Cover Letters: Your Billboard to an Interview
From Career Services - October 26, 2012
When it comes to applying for employment or internship opportunities, it is rare when your resume is not accompanied with a cover letter; we actually suggest including one with every application you submit. For most students, cover letters are viewed as not the easiest document to write but yet they understand the importance and value this letter can have. So, what is the best approach to writing a killer cover letter; one that complements your resume and enhances your chance of securing an interview? Below you will find information related to the purpose of the letter, general guidelines, as well as tips you can use.
The main purpose of a cover letter is to intrigue the employer/recruiter/hiring manager in a way that will make them want to reviewing your resume carefully (beyond just the typical 20-30 second review), and more importantly entice them to want to interview you. Cover letters that show how the writer’s skills and experience will benefit the employer help accomplish that purpose. Remember – it is not what the employer can do for you, but what you can do for the employer. For instance, too many job seekers make the mistake of using the cover letter to write about their interests and what they want to gain from the experience, however recruiters truly want to know how the organization will benefit by hiring YOU! Finally, a non-customized or general cover letter template will in most cases hurt your application and most likely result in your application being rejected. Therefore, customizing a cover letter (and your resume for that matter) to the position and organization is extremely important. Below you will find specific tips and strategies for how to customize your letter.
When writing a cover letter, there are a few general guidelines we recommend:
- FORMAT: when it comes to formatting your cover letter we suggest using the same font type and size, and margin spacing as you did on your resume. Note: Sans Serif fonts are generally more accepted than using fancy fonts such as Forte, Freestyle Script, or Century Gothic. Also, make sure to not use colored graphics, quotes or fonts in your letter. They are more interested in the content than your graphic design skills.
- HEADINGS: Copy and paste your heading from your resume onto your cover letter — and center it. Left justify the rest of the letter, including the date, salutation, opening, middle and closing paragraphs, and your closing.
- INSIDE ADDRESS: When addressing your letter, make sure to include the full name, title, and address of the person who will review your application. Take the time to research the name of the person who is the hiring manager. If no name is provided, you can address it to Hiring Manager or Selection Committee.
- RE: Between the Inside Address and the Salutation, us “RE:” (regarding) to cite the exact position title and the job ID number or requisition number. If no number is provided, just include the position title. This will help the recruiter identify the job of interest to you.
- SALUTATION: Use “Dear Dr., Mr. or Ms.” and the last name of the contact (call the company for the name of the person and correct salutation if not provided) and end the salutation with a colon (:). For instance (Dear Ms. Jane Doe:). Do NOT use “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Madam” or “Dear Sir” – these are outdated greetings, and it will appear you don’t care enough to research/find the name of the contact person. However, if through your research you are not able to track down a name, we recommending one of the following: “Dear Hiring Manager” or “Dear Selection Committee”.
- OPENING PARAGRAPH: To help set yourself apart from the typical opening (“I am writing to apply for…”), begin with your skills and qualifications, and how they match the need of the company. For example, “With significant experience as a community health educator, I have precisely the qualifications you are seeking in a…”. Then you can restate the name of the specific position for which you are applying, for whom and where you found it (or if you were referred, who). Lastly, finish with 2-3 sentences why you are specifically interested in the position and the organization. No matter how you start off your opening paragraph, do NOT begin with an “I” statement…or begin all other statements with “I”.
- MIDDLE PARAGRAPHS: Whether you include one or two paragraphs for what we call the “body” of the letter, this is where you will highlight your most skills, qualifications and/or accomplishments most relevant or of value to them. Be concise, yet specific. You are not rewriting your resume, just highlighting those things that may be of most interest for this position. For instance, if you state you have the skill or experience, provide one example that portrays that experience or use of that skill in action. Choose one, if available, that is most relevant to the position. To help you identify what skills, qualifications or accomplishments to highlight, go through the position description and highlight all the keywords that represent your skills, knowledge and/or experience (no matter what level or how much). They keywords will be integrated into your resume. Next, based on the ones you have highlighted, select the 3-4 that are your strongest. These are the ones you will highlight in the “body” or “middle paragraphs” of the letter. Note: we recommend using their keywords verbatim.
- CLOSING PARAGRAPH: It is here where you will say that you would welcome the chance to meet in person to further discuss how your background and skills would allow you to bring value to the organization immediately. If you are willing to follow through, you can say that you will call in four or five working days to schedule a time to meet (note: the caution here is that some recruiters may find that level of assertion off-putting, or they may have indicated in the position description that they suggest No Phone Calls). In that case…don’t include this. Similar to writing a conclusion paragraph for a paper you may have written, make sure to restate your interest in the position and organization. Another option is to say something to the effect of “Should you have any questions or need additional information, please contact me at (phone) or (email)”. End this paragraph by thanking them for their time and consideration of your application…and that you look forward to speaking with you soon. Following this statement, end the letter with “Sincerely” and your signature in blue ink (if you will be sending a hard copy).
Your cover letter should not exceed one page – keep it concise -no more than 3 or 4 paragraphs. In addition, remember that the recruiter or hiring manager is likely going to be reading several letters (and they probably enjoy reading it as much as you enjoy writing it). Thus, try and make the letter professional, but also incorporate some of your personality in it. When saying this, we mean crafting a letter that will make the reader say “wow, this is definitely someone who would fit into our culture and that people would love working with”. To end on a good note, the more you write cover letters, the easier it becomes. And while you may never list writing cover letters as one of your favorite things to do, with these guidelines and tips, and a little bit of work on your part, you’ll be on your way to writing great letters—and more importantly, securing that interview you’ve desired.